Understanding Faith Based Treatment When Faith is a Charged Issue

Understanding faith-based treatment can be a challenge for some. Many people have had difficult religious experiences in their early lives… perhaps having religious activities and doctrine intertwined with toxic parenting, for example, or having had a loss of faith, clergy abuse, or some other adverse experiences related to their participation in a religious community. While it is certainly not necessary to fully abandon one’s beliefs and spirituality when such distressful things have happened, many separate themselves from organized religion and even hold such organizations at more than arm’s length. Along with such reactions frequently come internal conflict and the feeling of being at odds even with faith in general.

Encountering the 12 Steps

The 12 Steps have been a difficult hurdle for some who have sought addiction treatment and been introduced to them in rehab. In fact, for many years, addiction treatment programs were often run primarily using the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) as their foundational philosophy. People who felt at odds with the philosophy had little alternative recourse.

Today, of course, there are far more options, including programs that describe themselves as using a non-12 Step approach. Thankfully, someone seeking addiction treatment these days does not have to comply with a one-size-fits-all philosophy whether it makes sense to them or not. However, no matter what treatment program you choose, or what treatment philosophy you experience, chances are that you will hear about the 12 Steps at some point. After all, they work for countless people, and they are a valuable, free, and widely available resource in most communities.

When you do encounter the 12 Steps through rehab or aftercare referral, don’t be surprised if you revisit some of the faith-based life issues that you may have long forgotten, lived with for a long time, or simply taken for granted. In meetings and in the literature from 12 Step groups, you will hear the words ‘God’ and ‘Higher Power’. You’ll also find that prayer is recommended and used in meetings. Additionally, if you decide to ‘work the Steps’, you very quickly encounter the 2nd Step which presents you the task of believing that a Higher Power can restore you to sanity. If you do have difficulty accepting these concepts, the 12 Steps can be very off-putting for you.

Core Issues in Spiritual Difficulty

There are many issues that arise when people have what we would term a ‘spiritual issue’ in addiction treatment and recovery, or simply in life in general. However, here are some common ones people in addiction treatment and recovery deal with:

  • If there is a God, why hasn’t he answered my prayers?
  • If there is a God, why do such terrible things happen in the world?
  • How can I believe in something or someone I can’t see?
  • The God I was taught about was not a loving God.
  • I have committed unforgivable sins.
  • God abandoned me.
  • Why did God allow me to suffer as an innocent child?
  • I don’t believe in God so how can I participate in a 12 Step program?
  • Isn’t AA a religious organization?
  • I don’t understand the difference between spirituality and religion. It seems the same to me.
  • I don’t trust people who talk about God. I was abused by a priest, nun, minister…
  • I was punished with religion as a child.
  • My parents were very religious but abused me.
  • I am afraid of being controlled by a religious group.
  • I’m not worthy of having a relationship with God.
  • I’ve done so many bad things in my life that I couldn’t possibly have a relationship with God.

Of course, there are many more issues that one might call ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’, and people can find a great deal of benefit in discussing these in individual or group counseling as they begin a treatment and recovery process. Such issues are perhaps far more common than you may think for people from all types of backgrounds in rehab. Whether they have had an active participation in organized religion or not, most people find that the shame and guilt of active addiction takes them to such spiritual issues as:

  • Morals and ethics–what beliefs and values they hold dear
  • Personal standards of conduct that were violated during active addiction
  • The concept of sin as related to behaviors in active addiction
  • The desire for reconciliation or forgiveness for violations of morals and ethics
  • Looking for ways to move forward without guilt and shame

When Trauma Impacts Spirituality and Faith

Childhood experiences have been said to ‘make or break’ us. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that childhood trauma if unresolved can hurt us the rest of our lives, but it is never too late to find a resolution. This is applicable, sadly, for a large number of people in addiction treatment and recovery. In fact, unresolved trauma among people with substance problems is so common that professionals expect it until they can rule it out.

Any abused, abandoned or neglected child can be so damaged that we might say that the child’s ‘spirit has been broken’. What we typically mean is something akin to a shroud of helplessness and hopelessness has fallen across a young life that should be energetic, curious, enlivened, and with all the hope in the world pulling them forward. Instead, a broken spirit, or the life of a traumatized child, is one of disconnection. Such a child, or an adult who was such a child, doesn’t have the healthy connections healthy children have with others, the world, and even themselves.

A traumatized child can heal given the right support, help, and environment. So can an adult who was a traumatized child, and this is one of the most liberating and common effects of addiction recovery for countless people. Healing old wounds is pivotal in recovery, but it typically comes as a surprise. Most of us, for example, thought we simply needed to stop using substances to be better. We hadn’t yet noticed that addiction was a far greater issue than using.

Power and Control, Childhood Trauma

Among the ways a traumatic childhood can impact faith in later years is through issues of power and control that are entangled with a higher authority in one’s life. In childhood, our caregivers are our ‘higher powers’. If they are protective and nurturing, then we are safe, happy, and secure. We enjoy closeness with them. However, if they are abusive, and cause us suffering because they are more powerful than we are, we absolutely do not feel safe or secure in the world. We also are at best ambivalent about whether we want to be close to them or not. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that we need them whether they are safe or not.

These types of issues are easily transferred to other encounters with other higher authorities. We might not, for instance, trust our teachers, coaches, employers or anyone else we deem to have more authority than we do in certain circumstances. When it comes to spiritual matters, we encounter the concept of God, for example, the ultimate authority who is said to have the ultimate power and control over our lives. While these things are often unconscious at first when we encounter the 12 Steps, conflicts with a teacher or a boss, we can respond with powerful negative reactions such as anxiety, fear, resistance, anger and so on. We may even act out despite ourselves, engaging in self-sabotage over and over despite our best resolve to do better.

Toxic Parents and Spirit

Toxic parents come in lots of guises, and some of us get well into adulthood and addiction long before we put the 2 and 2 of our family experiences together. Some toxicity is covert–or well-hidden. People who say ‘I had everything as a child–a good home, a good education, loving parents…’ can still feel wounded. Upon closer inspection, for instance, that ‘everything’ may not have included enough physical affection or enough praise. It’s always hard to compare personal pain to someone else’s. As they say, until you walk in someone’s shoes, what appears to have been the perfect family may have been extremely stressful or wounding behind closed doors day after day. Spirits can be broken slowly, like rocks eroding under water over time. In other situations, the pain of living with toxic parents is more blatant. Physical, emotional, mental or sexual abuse is obviously damaging. Their effects ripple powerfully and notably throughout many aspects of life.

Healing Authority Issues

For people who come to a faith-based juncture in treatment and recovery, authority issues can be disguised as simply that–someone can’t stay employed because he doesn’t like to be told what to do… someone can’t finish a degree because she is too focused on fighting the teacher’s every assertion or grade… We often gloss over such issues, calling them self-defeating behaviors and not getting to the crux of the issue. Feeling afraid of someone else’s expertise, being unable to learn or follow reasonable instructions… these types of patterns can not only interfere with ordinary pursuits but can anchor us in spiritual difficulties, too. How can we have faith when we can’t tolerate a power greater than ourselves? The solution for many lies in pulling apart the entwined issues of spirituality and a troubled family life with toxic parental authorities.